THE BLOG
07/16/2007 07:01 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

My Vacation in Cheney Land (Part Two)

Day two starts again in Lander, Wyoming. Large farm equipment lumbering down Main Street, a NRA sticker on a big truck, ranchers and rural people, the type of folks Robert F. Kennedy said he enjoyed speaking to on the campaign trail: "I like rural people, who work hard with their hands. There is something healthy about them," he told Jack Newfield. "The people are not so neurotic and hypocritical as in Washington or New York." In the years since, the Democrats have lost most rural voters for complex reasons relating to racism and perceived elitism. That's why even a faux populist like George W. Bush has a certain appeal to them; he's white and Protestant and his rhetoric reinforces their unblemished view of America. I've seen one African-American person since I came to Wyoming. Lander is definitive small town America but a bit more open-minded; it's my wife's hometown of 6,892 souls.

Just outside of town are Fort Washakie and the Wind River Indian Reservation. Sacagawea is buried there. I bought some amazing Native American dream catchers, sage, and other trinkets on the Rez. My Wyomingian in-laws tell me that the Shoshone are the largest tribe and generally have lighter skin than those of their neighbors, and it probably helped them get a slightly better land settlement. The darker skinned Arapahos, I am told, got totally fucked.

In Lander the Fourth of July is a huge deal. The local orthodontist, a Mormon, makes a good living straightening the teeth of middle-class Lander children (including my wife's) so he gives back to the community each year by throwing an enormous, computer-driven fireworks display on the 3rd of July. He's a hobbyist fascinated with everything that goes BOOM! He's known to shoot off over $20,000 worth of homemade fireworks. It's a tribute to the crooked teeth of the children of Lander.

Trucks line the ridges and roads and occupy every speck of high ground. The great white masses sit in lawn chairs awaiting the big show. On multiple truck and car radios 97.5 FM loudly blares. The station usually plays classic rock like Toto, Boston, Deep Purple, and lesser-known bands in a predictable rotation. But not on July 3rd.

Coinciding with the orthodontist's fireworks 97.5 broadcasts a Disney-type sanitized lesson on the meaning of the Fourth of July. A voice-of-god narration, over sappy muzak swelling at the right moments, gives Lander's listeners a hyper-tendentious, triumphalist description of the founding of the United States of America. It was like John Ashcroft's vocal rendition of "Let the Eagle Soar," but with a pedagogical aim. There were quotations from the Declaration of Independence coupled with assertions of how the United States stands for all that is good: "Our cause is humanity's cause to fight for liberty and justice for all the world's people" and so on. Martial music fills the breaks with crazy horns and brass, cymbals clanging to a military cadence. Nothing on slavery or the treatment of the Native Americans, (which is ironic since Fort Washakie and the Wind River Reservation are right down the road). I look around and don't see any Native Americans attending the event.

I never connected the dots that fireworks really mean something. I saw on the back of trucks stickers indicating that the owners "Support the Troops" and are "Proud to be an American" (like the Toby Keith song). The disembodied words about "liberty" and "freedom" waft over the hills, and clearly hold deep meaning to these people. They believe the U.S. is fulfilling its creed in Iraq and Afghanistan. (My brothers-in-law support the occupation.)

Like the Mormon Church's fantastical stories of Joseph Smith and golden tablets and god speaking to him in upstate New York and Christ visiting the New World, etc. there is an equally fantastical view of U.S. history out there in rural America. It is very dangerous to reduce history to a comic book: "We are Good, We are Chosen"/"They are Bad and Deserve to be Seen as Evil."

I never made that connection before. I thought the Fourth of July was just "Fireworks Day," an excuse for adolescents to blow some shit up. But in America's rural "heartland" July 4th means something, and the right-wing Republicans own it. They own the flag, the military, the Bible, and even the dominant narrative of American history.

The Mormon orthodontist's fireworks display in Lander was an eye-opening experience. The local FM station strongly implied that the U.S. today is fighting for "freedom" and "liberty" in Iraq. I found this horrifying because the U.S. military is occupying Iraqi lands, controlling their livelihoods and resources, quartering soldiers in Iraqis' homes, searching the homes and persons of innocent people, employing harassment and intimidation, collectively punishing entire towns like Falluja, privatizing their economy to benefit U.S. investors, and destroying the ability of the Iraqi people to exercise sovereignty and independence. The supreme irony of the Fourth of July celebrations in Lander and other Red-state towns is that the people do not realize that the United States is doing everything in Iraq that the British did to the American colonists in 1776. But trying to explain this would be so contrary to their worldview they would just think a whacked-out Californian was in town.